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Norma Jean Darden

Former model, restaurateur and caterer Norma Jean Darden was born in Newark, New Jersey. Darden enrolled at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York where she graduated with her B.A. degree in liberal arts in 1961. She then entered the world of modeling while at Sarah Lawrence and was a part of the historic 1973 Models of Versailles show in Paris, which featured twenty models, the first collective of African American models to grace a European fashion runway. Throughout her modeling career, Darden graced the pages of fashion magazines such as Bazaar, Glamour, Mademoiselle and Vogue. After a medical condition forced her to leave the world of modeling in 1975, Darden and her sister Carole launched a catering business. Three years later, they co-wrote a seminal cookbook on Southern cooking titled, Spoonbread & Strawberry Wine: Recipes and Reminiscences of a Family.

Darden then opened her first restaurant in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood called Spoonbread, Inc, which specialized in Southern cuisine. In 1997, Darden opened two more restaurants with Miss Mamie's Spoonbread Too and Miss Maude’s Spoonbread Too restaurants, both in Manhattan. Darden’s Spoonbread Catering has amassed a client list that includes Fortune 500 companies and celebrity clients like Bill Cosby and Oprah Winfrey. In addition, Darden appeared in the motion pictureThe Cotton Club in 1984 and has served as food stylist for the Eddie Murphy film, Boomerang. Additionally, Darden produced a one-woman show based on her book titled Spoonbread and Strawberry Wine, which premiered at the American Place Theatre.

Darden’s restaurants have been featured in publications as diverse as the New York Times, USA Today, Black Enterprise, Essence and Ebony magazines.

Additionally, Darden sits on the Board of the Salvation Army.

Norma Jean Darden was interviewed byThe HistoryMakers on May 14, 2012.

Accession Number

A2012.126

Sex

Female

Interview Date

5/14/2012

Last Name

Darden

Maker Category
Middle Name

Jean

Occupation
Schools

Sarah Lawrence College

Nishuane

Hillside

Northfield School for Girls

Speakers Bureau

Yes

Speakers Bureau Availability

Depends on Schedule

First Name

Norma

Birth City, State, Country

Newark

HM ID

DAR04

Speakers Bureau Preferred Audience

Any

Speakers Bureau Honorarium

Yes - Expenses

Favorite Season

Spring, Summer

Speaker Bureau Notes

Emergency #: 212-781-9096 (sister Carole)

State

New Jersey

Favorite Vacation Destination

Anywhere

Favorite Quote

None

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

New York

Birth Date

11/4/1940

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

New York

Country

United States

Favorite Food

Bread (Spoon)

Short Description

Restaurateur and model Norma Jean Darden (1940 - ) was one of the first African American models to grace a European runway and was considered one of the most successful black caterers in New York.

Employment

Spoonbread Inc

Public Theater

Wilhelmina Models

Favorite Color

Orange

Timing Pairs
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DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Norma Jean Darden's interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Norma Jean Darden lists her favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Norma Jean Darden talks about her maternal family history

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Norma Jean Darden describes her mother's upbringing

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Norma Jean Darden talks about her paternal family history, pt.1

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Norma Jean Darden talks about her paternal family history, pt.2

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Norma Jean Darden talks about her paternal family history, pt.3

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Norma Jean Darden describes how her parents met

Tape: 1 Story: 9 - Norma Jean Darden recalls dangers her father faced as a physician in Newark, New Jersey

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Norma Jean Darden describes her parents' personalities

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Norma Jean Darden talks about her father, a physician who practiced at Beth Israel Medical Center in Newark, New Jersey

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Norma Jean Darden describes her family's move to Montclair, New Jersey

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Norma Jean Darden describes the sights, sounds, and smells of her childhood

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Norma Jean Darden talks about her grade school years and being the potential target of a kidnapping

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Norma Jean Darden remembers the sights, sounds, and smells from summers in Wilson, North Carolina

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Norma Jean Darden recounts her grade school years at Nishuane School and Hillside School in Montclair, New Jersey

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Norma Jean Darden describes her experience at Northfield School for Girls in Northfield, Massachusetts

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Norma Jean Darden describes her experience at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Norma Jean Darden describes an experience of racial discrimination at Vogue headquarters

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Norma Jean Darden describes picketing for the inclusions of black models and actors in Harper's Bazaar and on Broadway

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Norma Jean Darden recalls meeting HistoryMaker Audrey Smaltz and black modeling agencies at the beginning of her career

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Norma Jean Darden talks about studying acting at Sarah Lawrence in Bronxville, New York and her first modeling break with Black Beauty Modeling Agency

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Norma Jean Darden talks about her training as an actress

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Norma Jean Darden recalls dancing for Martha Graham and Alvin Ailey

Tape: 3 Story: 8 - Norma Jean Darden talks about her early years at Wilhelmina Models and the founder, Wilhelmina Cooper's death

Tape: 3 Story: 9 - Norma Jean Darden recalls early black models and early black fashion shows

Tape: 3 Story: 10 - Norma Jean Darden talks about the historic Battle of Versailles Fashion Show in Paris in 1973

Tape: 3 Story: 11 - Norma Jean Darden talks about Beverly Johnson's Vogue cover

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Norma Jean Darden talks about her acting career in the 1970s and the end of her modeling career

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Norma Jean Darden talks about her cookbook, 'Spoonbread & Strawberry Wine,' pt.1

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Norma Jean Darden talks about her cookbook, "Spoonbread & Strawberry Wine," pt.2

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Norma Jean Darden talks about the beginning of her catering career

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Norma Jean Darden recalls her short-lived foray into the import/export business

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Norma Jean Darden talks about her catering company, Spoonbread, Inc.

Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Norma Jean Darden talks about her two restaurants, Miss Mamie's Spoonbread Too, and Miss Maude's Spoonbread Too

Tape: 4 Story: 8 - Norma Jean Darden describes the challenges of running a catering business

Tape: 4 Story: 9 - Norma Jean Darden talks about her menu

Tape: 4 Story: 10 - Norma Jean Darden talks the impact of 9/11 and President Bill Clinton's Harlem residency on her restaurant business

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Norma Jean Darden talks about the one-woman show based on her book, 'Spoonbread and Strawberry Wine'

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Norma Jean Darden remembers being feted by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2011

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Norma Jean Darden talks about her future aspirations

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Norma Jean Darden describes what she would do differently

Tape: 5 Story: 5 - Norma Jean Darden reflects upon her legacy

Tape: 5 Story: 6 - Norma Jean Darden describes her hopes and concerns for the African American community

Tape: 5 Story: 7 - Norma Jean Darden talks about her family

Tape: 5 Story: 8 - Norma Jean Darden describes how she would like to be remembered

Tape: 5 Story: 9 - Norma Jean Darden talks about her clients

Tape: 5 Story: 10 - Norma Jean Darden narrates her photographs

DASession

1$1

DATape

2$4

DAStory

6$2

DATitle
Norma Jean Darden remembers the sights, sounds, and smells from summers in Wilson, North Carolina
Norma Jean Darden talks about her cookbook, 'Spoonbread & Strawberry Wine,' pt.1
Transcript
Okay, now I'm gonna back up some here and I wanna ask you about growing up during the summers in Wilson, North Carolina.$$Right.$$Now there should be some difference sights and sounds and smells from Wilson. So--$$Yes, well when we would get to Wilson, it was like freedom. There was no school and my Aunt Norma and my Uncle Ciell [ph.] were very--didn't have any children, so they were always so happy to welcome us. And we lived right on the route that took you from Florida right up to New Jersey. So at night there were buses and, and trucks and it was so noisy we couldn't even sleep when we first got to Wilson. 'Cause in Newark [New Jersey], although we had the bar across the street and the rooming house and there was the, the Jews with their caps and they were singing and almost like chants. We had Father Divine and all the people dressed in white. And we had all the diversity in Newark and the crowdedness. When we got to Wilson, it was a whole 'nother thing. The rituals were entirely different. In Newark you put on your shorts and you went out and that was it. Then you went to bed. When you got to Wilson, you had on your play clothes during the day. Then you took your showers, then you got dressed up and you went calling. So you would go visit a neighbor, and my aunt would take us. And then we went to the movies. My mother [Mamie Jean Darden] and father [Walter Darden] weren't much on movies. But there was the black movie [theater] in Wilson, and--or else you could go to the white movie [theater] and sit in the balcony. And my aunt went to the movies every--at least three times a week. So we had movies. And then coming home, we walked through the black section and we would go to Shade's [ph.] Drug Store and we could get pineapple ice. And that was the most delicious thing I could ever wanna eat. And in Wilson we just saw black people. We really didn't interface with any white people at all, except if you went to a department store. We went with our Aunt Norma to Missionary Society at the A.M.E. Church with her meetings there. And then she taught Sunday schools on Sunday. And we always had company for Sunday dinner. And we were always dressed up in Wilson, whereas we were not dressed up in New Jersey. And there was this overwhelming smell of tobacco in Wilson. That was the big thing there, tobacco, tobacco, tobacco. And the people calling tobacco, and the tobacco warehouses. And there was churning. My aunt made homemade root beer in the backyard. She also cut up her own chickens. She would take them by the neck and ring 'em around and chop their necks. And it was--oh my God. That was just, you know in Newark you went in the grocery store and got a package of chicken. You didn't have to fix your own dinner quite that literally. And she was just fearless. And we'd take the eggs out of the inside of the chicken and put 'em in her gravy. And she was extremely organized. In the mornings, breakfast was ready. Then Uncle Ciell would go to work, and then she did her housework in her housecoat. And then when dinner came, everybody had their bath and we dressed for dinner. And we either went to somebody's house or had dinner at home. And we had no television there for a long time. Whereas we had television in, in New Jersey. But it was really a different existence, entirely. And everything was segregated, even the library. So I had almost read everything in the library for children in that children's section. And whereas in Montclair we had, you know, huge library. We--nothing was separated like that.$Now let's go back a little bit to the writing of 'Spoonbread & Strawberry Wine.'$$Okay.$$Now what--now this is something different from modeling or acting.$$Yes.$$And where did you get--how did you--were you inspired to do this and--$$Well I had no intentions of writing a cookbook, but the food editor who was Maxime McKendry [Maxime de la Falaise] at Vogue came along one day and a couple of black models was sitting together. And she asked what as our ethnic origin. And one model who was from Harlem [New York City, New York] said "Oh, I'm Arabic." I went what? This is news to me. And the next was saying well I'm part Swedish, I'm part this. And everybody just jumped into this I'm--someone in my family was Indian. So when they got to me, I said I guess I'm the only nigger here. And everything shut up. And I never use that word, it's not one of my favorite words. But it was just--it's just that everyone was being so evasive. And I said my grandfather was born a slave, and I have--so I guess I'm really homegrown. So she zeroed in on me and she said I bet you have an interesting cookbook. I went cookbook? That was the last thing on my mind. I was barely eating. So she said yes. I mean if you, if your family goes back that far, you must have very interesting recipes. And I said well we do. And I thought about the homemade ice cream, the pineapple sorbet that I'd had in the South and the homemade root beer Aunt Norma had made. And how she used to make her own rolls and, and Aunt Lizzie [ph.] made biscuits. And she was right. I did have a lot of recipes in my background that I hadn't even thought about and couldn't make myself. So I told my sister [Carole Darden] about this. And she said that she'd had a dream that we were working on a project together. And I told you she's Taurus and a social worker and I'm Scorpio and, and all over the place. And she said I dreamed we were doing a project together. She now claims this was her only prophetic dream. But we forgot about that. And then Maxine called me up at my house and she said I have a publisher for you and his name is Mr. Garden. And he wants to do your cookbook. So I called Mr. Garden and he told me to bring him a proposal. And the proposal would be a couple of recipes and how we would knit them together. So we wrote all of our relatives and asked them to send us recipes and we got from Cousin Em in Kentucky. We got a molasses pie from Ruby. And we got Aunt Norma to send us her magnificent eggplant. And then the rest of them didn't even write us. So we only had three recipes. And then out of the blue the 'New York Times' called me and said we understand you're writing a cookbook. Well we think that would be fabulous. Model writes cookbook. So they came to my apartment and took a picture of me and my cat with me making Aunt Norma's eggplant. And I only had three recipes, mind you. And they ran it in the 'New York Times.' So once they ran it in the 'Times,' Mr. Garden called me and said he was doing Pearl Bailey's cookbook and he couldn't possibly do two black cookbooks. So he wasn't interested. But he had us write up the proposals. So I had a proposal and I had the 'Times,' and another company called Liveright [Publishing Corporation] called and said they wanted to publish the cookbook. And they paid me five thousand dollars. So that was big money to get all at once on advance. So my sister and I got on Greyhound buses, planes, everything, and we went back south to interview our relatives and to find out what they liked to cook. But in finding out what they liked to cook, they told us about their lives, and they shared their photographs with us. And we came up with the first memoir cookbook. And that started a whole trend. 'Cause now you don't get a cookbook without pictures. And, but we were the first to do a memoir cookbook going back to slavery. And that set a trend for cookbooks. And we had not only the pictures and the stories and what the person was known for and the recipes. And Liveright went bankrupt. And so we got passed along to Doubleday. And our cookbook has been in print for thirty years, over thirty years. And we're now on [Amazon] Kindle.$$And that's a--that is quite a story.$$Well it's certainly true. I couldn't have made that one up.